Inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander has many links to Washington & Obamas

By A. James Memmott

December 22, 2008 at 10:07am

Poetry is making a presidential inauguration comeback, Barack Obama having asked Elizabeth Alexander to read an original poem at his Jan. 21 ceremonies.

It will mark the first time since the second Clinton inauguration and only the fourth time in history that a made-for-the-occasion poem has been read at the swearing-in.

For Alexander, 46, a poet and professor of African-American history at Yale University, the occasion will be a return of sorts, as well.

She grew up in Washington, attending Sidwell Friends School, where Barack and Michelle Obama are sending their daughters.

Anderson’s father, Clifford L. Alexander Jr., was a staff member of the National Security Agency in the Kennedy administration and an adviser on civil rights to President Johnson.

He later served as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and he was the first African-American secretary of the Army.

Elizabeth Alexander’s mother, Adele Logan Alexander, is an author and professor of African-American women’s history at George Washington University.

After Sidwell Friends, Elizabeth Alexander went on to receive her undergraduate degree from Yale and her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.

Previous to teaching at Yale, where she will become the chair of the African-American history department next year, Alexander taught at several schools.

She met and became friends with Barack and Michelle Obama while she was on the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he was teaching law.

Alexander is also connected to the Obamas through her brother, Mark C. Alexander, a professor at Seton Hall University’s law school.

He served as the New Jersey director of the Obama presidential primary campaign and went on to be a policy director for Obama during the general election. He’s working now on the Obama-Biden presidential transition team.

Elizabeth Alexander, the author of four books of poems, received the $50,000 Jackson Poetry Prize in 2007, the first year the prize was given.

The award recognizes a poet who has published at least one book of poems but has not received “major national acclaim.”

Other poets have applauded Obama’s selection of Alexander.

“I can only say, “Yay!’ She’s wonderful poet,” Rita Dove, the former U.S. poet laureate, told The Washington Post. “This is going to be a wonderful match.”

Alexander told the Times that she hoped that she would create an inaugural poem that “has integrity and life that goes beyond the moment.”

She follows in the footsteps of Miller Williams, who recited his poem, “Of History and Hope” for Bill Clinton’s second inauguration in 1997.

Previous to that, Maya Angelou read at the first Clinton inauguration, and, most famously, Robert Frost for John F. Kennedy in 1961. (James Dickey read at one of the inaugural events for Jimmy Carter in 1977, but not at the ceremony itself.)

Like Dove, Angelou said that Alexander was the right choice to bring poetry back to the inauguration.

“She seems much like Walt Whitman,” Angelou told The New York Times. “She sings the American song.”

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